Summary and Current Status
On June 2, 2011, Syrian dentist Tuhama Maaruf was released from ‘Adra Prison. Her release occurred two days after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad granted a general amnesty to “detainees belonging to political movements.” She had been in prison since February 6, 2010, when she was taken into state custody in Aleppo and ordered to serve a 6-year prison term, imposed some 15 years before, but which Syrian authorities previously had not implemented. Amnesty International considered her to be a “prisoner of conscience.”
Initially, Dr. Maaruf was arrested in 1992 for alleged membership in the Party for Communist Action and was released on bail in late 1993 pending the outcome of her trial on the charge of “membership in a secret organization which aims to change the economic and social status of the state.” After her conviction and sentencing in 1995, Syrian authorities permitted her to remain free for 15 years.
Tuhama Maaruf studied dentistry at Aleppo University and graduated in 1997. She is married to Bakr Sidqi, a writer and former political prisoner and has two school-age children.
Dr. Maaruf was a medical student when she initially was detained on January 30, 1992. She also was allegedly a member of the Party for Communist Action (PCA - Hizb al-'Amal al-Shuyu'i). Her arrest was part of a crackdown against individuals who were alleged to be members of the PCA. Banned in the early 1980s and considered by the Syrian government to be an illegal organization, the PCA was effectively crushed by the crackdown. (Reputable human rights organizations such as Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and others have confirmed that the PCA is not known to have used or advocated violence.)
Following Dr. Maaruf’s detention, the Political Security services conducted an investigation of her case. Once that investigation was completed, she was transferred to the women’s prison in Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, where she remained for more than a year. On August 26, 1993, AI reported that Dr. Maaruf was “in the process of being tried by the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), together with more than 500 other political detainees and prisoners of conscience facing charges of membership or links with various unauthorized political parties.” Syrian authorities released Dr. Maaruf on bail in November 1993, pending the outcome of her trial before the SSSC.
Dr. Maaruf’s trial did not conclude until January 5, 1995. On that date, the SSSC convicted her of “membership in a secret organization which aims to change the economic and social status of the state” (Article 306 of Syria’s Penal Code) and sentenced her to a six-year prison term with hard labor. According to HRW, Dr. Maaruf’s lengthy sentence is typical of those meted out by the SSSC for individuals charged with participation in unauthorized political parties.
There is broad consensus in the international community that procedures followed by the SSSC violate internationally recognized standards for free and fair trials. The SSSC was created by Legislative Decree 47 of March 28, 1968. From its inception, the SSSC has been conceived as an institution of the State of Emergency with the sole task of dealing with political and state security cases. The SSSC functions outside of the ordinary criminal justice system. It is accountable only to the Minister of Interior, who is, by delegation, the Martial Law Governor in charge of overseeing the implementation of the State of Emergency Law.
According to AI, the SSSC lacks both independence and impartiality, and “trials before the SSSC breach international fair trial standards and fail to meet the requirements of Syria’s own laws or conform with practices in Syria’s ordinary courts.” It reports that lawyers are not free to meet their clients in detention without written permission from the president of the SSSC, which is often withheld. According to HRW, lawyers of defendants tried by the SSSC are not guaranteed access to their clients prior to trial, trial proceedings begin before lawyers have had an opportunity to see the case files, and the court often denies lawyers the opportunity to engage in oral arguments on behalf of their clients. Furthermore, defendants sentenced by the SSSC have no right to appeal their verdicts to a higher authority.
Following Dr. Maaruf’s conviction and sentencing in 1995, Syrian authorities did not implement her prison term, and, for more than 15 years, she was permitted to remain free. Then, unexpectedly, on February 6, 2010, agents from the Aleppo Branch of Syria’s criminal security forces took her back into custody to serve her six-year sentence. At the time of her re-incarceration, several Syrian human rights organizations issued a joint statement that asserted that Dr. Maaruf had “undertaken no banned political activities” since her release on bail in 1993.
For three days, Dr. Maaruf was held at Aleppo’s Criminal Security branch, where her family was permitted to visit her. Then, on February 9, 2010, the SSSC held a hearing at the request of Dr. Maaruf’s lawyer, who argued that because Article 162 of Syria’s Penal Code stipulates that “the period of prescription of the execution of the criminal sentence is twice the length of the sentence issued by the court,” her 6-year sentence could not be enforced because more than 12 years had passed since it was issued. The general prosecutor of the SSSC rejected the request for her release.
With regard to her conditions of confinement, the day after her SSSC hearing, on February 10, 2010, Syrian authorities transferred Dr. Maaruf from the women’s prison in Aleppo to the women’s prison in Douma on the outskirts of Damascus. After only a few hours in the Douma prison, she was transferred to ’Adra Prison in Damascus and initially was held incommunicado for nearly a month and a half. According to HRW, she was one of only about a dozen women who were held among an estimated 7,000 male inmates at ’Adra Prison. Reportedly, she and the other female inmates were held in a special section of the prison under the control of Political Security, a security agency of the Syrian government, and were treated worse than their male counterparts. In November 2010, HRW reported that female inmates were permitted to leave their cells twice a week while male inmates were permitted to do so at least two hours twice a day and that family visits with male inmates were not subject to approval of Political Security as was the case with the women. Some of the female inmates with whom Dr. Maaruf was held are not political prisoners, but rather have been convicted of common crimes. Dr. Maaruf’s conditions of confinement at ’Adra Prison contravened both Syria’s law on prison administration [نظام إدارة السجون ] and the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which stipulate that: The different categories of prisoners shall be kept in separate institutions or parts of institutions taking account of their sex, age, criminal record, the legal reason for their detention and the necessities of their treatment.
The CHR learned from a credible source that 45 days elapsed between the time that Dr. Maaruf was taken back into state custody and her first family visit. Thereafter, permission reportedly was granted for Dr. Maaruf to have one family visit per month in the presence of agents of the Political Security forces. However, her family reportedly was not allowed to bring her any items other than clothing during their visits.
With regard to Dr. Maaruf’s mental and physical health during her imprisonment, credible reports indicated that she was anguished by the separation from her children and suffered from migraines and menstruation that was heavy and irregular.
On October 28, 2010, Alkarama (Dignity)—a non-governmental organization that works to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in the Arab world—submitted Dr. Maaruf’s case to both the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
On February 18. 2011, Dr. Maaruf reportedly began a hunger strike. A joint statement by eight non-governmental groups in Syria expressing “complete solidarity” with her said that she was calling for “an end to the inhumane practices to which she is subjected” and requesting “transfer from ’Adra Prison to a prison for women.” According to AI, on February 26, 2011, she sent a letter to Syria’s Minister of the Interior, urging him to authorize her transfer to Douma Women’s Prison. To our knowledge, she never received a response to this request. She reportedly suspended her hunger strike in early March 2011, shortly before authorities transferred her from ’Adra Prison to the Public Security Branch in Damascus. Although prisoners are often transferred to this facility before being set free, Dr. Maaruf was not released. Instead, some time before March 28, 2011, Syrian authorities reportedly transferred her back to the political wing of ’Adra Prison, where she remained until June 2, 2011, when she was one of several hundred prisoners of conscience released under a general presidential amnesty for “detainees belonging to political movements.”